Gathering of the Ghosts – January 22, 2024

The “So What?” Test: How to Write A Book Proposal That Interests Agents

November 30, 2020

In today’s world where fast-food restaurants, soda, and processed foods reign supreme, does “fat dad” have to mean “fat kid”? Digital entrepreneur and beloved vlogger Shay Butler and his preteen son, Gavin, decided to find out the answer for themselves.

The “celebrity journey book” is a well-worn concept. Famous person sets out to lose weight/shake off addiction/forgive their parents. But a famous dad trying to give his son a better grasp on a healthy lifestyle than he has shown himself? That’s an attention-grabber.

This is the first paragraph of a book proposal for Fat Dad, Fat Kid, a book I worked on with Shay and Gavin Butler a few years back. Right out of the gate, we can see why readers (and listeners—it was an audiobook bestseller) would be interested in this story. We can easily answer the “so what?” question.

“So what?” is one of four tests that agents and editors will apply to your book proposal. They want to know—and fast—why this book is unique, and why readers would be motivated to buy it.

My high school history teacher delighted in nudging students with “So what?”. In her margin notes on our essays, she constantly urged us to explain not just what happened, but why it matters. Sure, it drove us all crazy at the time, but it was a great lesson in digging beyond facts and plotlines to find points of connection between author and reader.

When I edit a book proposal I often write in the margins, “Why should your readers care?” anyplace the author hasn’t made it obvious. It’s a gentler version of “So what?” (hey, I’m a gentle person, what can I say?) but it makes the same point.

A good book proposal answers the “So what?” question. It doesn’t just set up a series of interesting facts and leave the reader hanging. Take as an example the lead-in to Dr. Theo Tsaousides’ book proposal for Ready-Set-Goal: How Dreamers Become Achievers:

As a neuropsychologist, my work involves observing, learning, and applying my knowledge to help people achieve their goals and improve their lives. Time and again I come face-to-face with the same type of clients: the people who feel stuck. These are the people who talk a lot about how much they want to improve their lives, boost their productivity, make more money, get a big promotion, be more fit and healthy, fall in love, pursue their dreams, help others fulfill their dreams, or simply enjoy life more.

[Reproduced in Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Herman’s Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 That Sold and Why (Turner Publishing Company, 2016)]

You’ve got a matter of seconds to engage an agent or editor with your “big story” before they flip on to the next book proposal in the pile. We know that this proposal sold—that’s how it made it into Jeff and Deborah Herman’s book—but it succeeded in spite of the lead-in, not because of it.

Don’t bury your “So what?” too far back in your proposal. Book proposals are not psychological thrillers that delight readers with a twist in the tail at the very end. I shouldn’t have to wait until the last page to find out the most critical piece of information.

After “So what?” agents and editors have three other questions they want answered.

Question 1: Why you?

Explain how you know readers will listen to you. What are your credentials and your track record of acquiring audiences (through any channel, whether it’s a blog, public speaking, articles, workshops, or podcasts)?

Do you have a unique ability to convey your message in a voice, style, structure, or context that makes it particularly appealing or easier to understand?

What is your competitive edge, and how do you plan to sustain and even grow it?

Question 2: Why now?

Timing is everything in publishing. Convince agents and editors that your book is needed in the current marketplace (and more importantly, the marketplace that will unfold over the next few years).

Why does what you have to say matter right now? What’s timely about it?

How is it relevant, given everything else that’s happening in the world now? (And what we anticipate happening.)

Do you have a “burning platform”: a particular kind of pain message that relays a sense of serious urgency?

Question 3: Who cares?

This question is not meant sardonically, but literally.

What is the identifiable group of readers who will spend $20 on this book?

Even if your book is interesting and timely, you need to ensure that the message is being delivered to the right people—the ones who would stand up and say, “Yes, I care!”

Why is this message specifically relevant to its intended audience?

How are you going to reach those people?

In the case of Fat Dad, Fat Kid, you have two groups of people who might pick up this book. You’ve got Shay’s existing fan base, who want to know what happens behind closed doors at the home of their favorite YouTuber. Then you have people who are less engaged with Shay, but very engaged in figuring out how they can set their kids up to live a healthy lifestyle, especially if they aren’t themselves paragons of virtue in the diet and exercise department. Each group is looking for a slightly different “So what.” That’s why understanding your readers—the who cares and the why they care—is so essential.

When you write a book proposal, you are writing it for agents and editors in the first instance, not the eventual book buyer. The same principle applies, though: have you made the agent understand why a vast number of people will buy this book? Have you made the editor see why people will care, and who these people are?

So what? Why you? Why now? Who cares? On the surface, these four questions may look simplistic. Don’t underestimate them, though. Too many book proposals fail to engage agents and editors because they don’t bring a central idea to life, and show the hunger for that idea that exists in the world today.

Run your book proposal through the “So what?” machine to make sure it satisfies its readers: first, agents and editors; and later, the wider audience for your book.


You may also like…

Stay Connected

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter, Words to the Wise, for industry trends and publishing advice.